How does arthritis affect mental health? Two people tell us

08 October 2021
Young man called Richard standing outside standing near trees.
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How are you feeling today? We understand living with the unpredictability and pain of arthritis can affect your emotional wellbeing. It’s important to be kind yourself and not feel bad for feeling down.

Paying attention to your emotional and mental state is an important aspect of your overall wellbeing and may even impact how you manage your arthritis.

Remember you are not alone. If you need support or advice, we're here for you. We offer our helpline, online community and our Facebook, Instagram and Twitter communities are available, if you want to talk to other people living with arthritis.

If you have concerns about anxiety, depression, or changes in mood, speak to your doctor for advice.

For World Mental Health Day, Richard and Sukhjeen share how living with arthritis has affected their mental health and what helps give them strength and support.

“Having arthritis had a huge impact on my mental health.”

Richard, 38, has osteoarthritis and was diagnosed with Perthes disease after experiencing symptoms which started when he was four. When he was 25, he was diagnosed with osteoarthritis as a result of Perthes.

After his condition significantly deteriorated, Richard was referred for a hip replacement and since his operation in 2019, it has been lots of rehabilitation to help him get back on his feet.

“I didn’t appreciate just how big an impact my arthritis had on my mental health until I became pain-free.”

The pain took up so much of my headspace without me realising it. Living in constant pain is incredibly draining because it’s always there, which makes it difficult to enjoy everyday moments.

I was constantly asking myself the question “can I manage this?” Every decision had to be prepared for. On the rare occasions I was having a good day, the anticipation of pain was almost just as bad.

It’s very easy to go to a very dark place.

“I prepared myself for my surgery to make sure I was in a good shape.”

I trained for it, almost like I would if I was taking part in a sporting event.

I also watched the Andy Murray: Recovering documentary on Amazon Prime which proved to be something of an inspiration. It was his determination more than anything, and the singularity of his aim to get back to playing properly.

As soon as I could after my op, I was on the exercise bike and working with my physiotherapist to set targets to get the mobility back and start building up my strength. Once I had graduated beyond the crutches and sticks, life started to change.

I was proud of it because I know I had to work hard to achieve this.

“I think as a family we’re all a lot more open about mental health now.”

There have been dark days even after surgery. Having more headspace now I’m pain free isn’t always a good thing!

The one thing we’ve always maintained as a family is having the honesty to talk to each other about how we’re feeling.

Three months after surgery came COVID-19 and a whole new situation to deal with. In my head, I’ve bundled both events together and I feel as a family we’re coming out the other side of this experience a lot stronger.

“Exercise is essential for good mental health.”

I’m not saying go out and run a marathon, or go and cycle 100km, but simply go out and get moving. Go for a walk. Do a home workout or do the gardening.

Dust off the bike and take it out for an hour. You’ve got nothing to prove to anybody and you don’t have to impress anyone. But the feeling you’ll get afterwards will keep you doing it.

In my most challenging moments, I have turned to exercise, and it has fixed it. It’s not a one-size-fits-all strategy, but in my experience having the ability to do something helps in the dark moments.

“It's the easiest thing in the world to let everyone think you're fine.”

What I would say is that once you take that first step and talk to someone about it, whether it's family, or a friend, or a professional, that's the most difficult bit out of the way.

My other advice would be:

  • Sit down and write a list of the things that make you happy: going for a walk, watching your favourite TV show, drawing, writing, anything. And then take some time each day to do one of those things.
  • Make time for yourself. Your mental health doesn't have to define who you are, it just becomes part of who you are. Taking time for yourself should be as routine as brushing your teeth or having a shower.

“I like to take a few mindful moments to process the issue and journal how I am feeling.”

Sukhjeen @chronically_brown lives with inflammatory arthritis and is an advocate for creating a space for south Asian voices living with chronic illness. Diagnosed at 20, her world was turned world upside down. She sought to meet others in a similar position and similar age.

Living with South Asian chronic illness isolating at uni, she found so many people same condition online, these communities helped her understand more about her condition and she found advice how to help.

Sukhjeen talks about understanding the changes to your body, learning new ways to do everyday things. For example, pacing your day. The biggest thing she’s learnt is living with arthritis is not the end of the world. You learn how much strength you have in yourself.

“My diagnosis and symptoms were quite sudden and the whole experience felt like a whirlwind in which I could barely catch my breath.”

The time when I was diagnosed was a struggle and being a university student and trying to manage the stress of my assignments made things worse.

I became quite isolated trying to manage my workload and my health but not having the energy to keep a social life or friendships. I was also grieving the body I used to have, the freedom and spontaneity that came with a pain-free body.

To help manage this, I started to join online community groups and also sought out help by talking to a counsellor. It helped me come to terms and learn how to live with my pain.

“Some days can be harder than others when dealing pain, for me this is usually due to stress.”

Managing stress can be hard for anyone but when you are managing stress and pain; it can be especially demanding on your body.

When things get stressful and overwhelming, I like to take a few mindful moments to process the issue and journal how I am feeling. This helps me figure out a solution and prevent unnecessary pain.

To help me manage my pain, I use my electric blanket (heat is amazing for my pain!) or I have a relaxing bath.

Distraction techniques also help me to manage my pain. Previously, I used to read but brain fog and fatigue can sometimes impact this. Instead, I like to create digital illustrations.

My art gives me the ability to share my feelings through the images. Sometimes they show the frustration of how it feels to be chronically ill or sometimes I use them to create gifts for loved ones.

“Through Chronically Brown I have been able to meet others.”

I’ve met others online who not only live with the same or similar health conditions but also come from the same cultural background, this has helped me feel less isolated.

Helping my community through voluntary work has been valuable to my wellbeing and mental health. Seeing how our new campaign ‘desi-abled’ has helped others accept their chronic illness/disability has been powerful and encouraged me to accept my arthritis.

“My advice to anyone trying to manage their wellbeing alongside their arthritis would be...”

Take the time to understand and identify your triggers. Things are easier to control when you know the root of the problem.

We’re here whenever you need us.